The Jewish holiday of Passover begins at sundown on Monday night. The celebratory meal, the Seder, is one of the most universally observed rituals in our tradition. Jews and non Jews alike sit together, share traditional food and explore the central theme of Passover.
As human beings we are entitled to be free, and we have a responsibility to help others be free. Thats why we must begin by asking the central question of the evening: What does it mean to be free? At the Seder, the notion of freedom is about freedom from slavery – from the enslavement that the ancient Israelites experienced – and from enslavements today.
This ritual, repeated year after year, is designed to reinforce both the commitment to keep the value of freedom front and center to help remember that the past is a most critical factor in determining the future. Indeed, remembrance is the vehicle that enables us to be truly free. The annual reenactment of enslavement serves to remind us to avoid using our freedom to restrict the freedom in others. The Seder makes us confront the consequences of lacking freedom in visceral ways- tears symbolized by salted water, plagues recollected one by one, and poor mans bread- unleavened bread that is like a cracker and called matzah. Yet along with the weightiness of the themes of the Seder experience we are commanded to sing joyously, sit back in comfortable chairs and eat hors doeuvres in the way that the rich merchants of Ancient Greece would have done 2,000 years ago.
Repetitive rituals in religion are meant to remind us that certain values are so important that they have to be woven into the very fabric of the experience of faith. The tension between slavery and freedom is one such theme in the Jewish tradition. At Passover we celebrate freedom from slavery. Often overlooked is that the tradition takes this theme much further. Whereas Passover is understood as freedom from slavery, there is another lesser known holiday seven weeks later that ends a cycle in which we are to take what we learn from the Seder and build on it. This lesser known holiday is called Shavuot. The holiday celebrates the giving of the Torah, the five books of Moses, to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai.
This giving symbolizes the awesome responsibility that freedom embodies. The idea here is that the concept of freedom is not a static one, we can be free from something and still misunderstand the very nature of freedom. Freedom from slavery is a moral imperative. But it must lead to freedom to perform moral and righteous actions that freedom from slavery allows us, another moral imperative. The movement of freedom from to freedom to completes the purpose of the Seder ritual. Escaping slavery is only the first step on a journey that culminates with the acceptance that as members of a just society we must accept upon ourselves the obligation to act – to embrace a particular set of laws and social norms.
But this obligation to be free to commit ourselves to a just society is also not a simple concept. There are three categories of this obligation in the Jewish tradition. In one category is the relationship between human beings and God; in another, the relationship between one person and another; in the third, the relationship between humanity and the earth which enables us to live and gives us sustenance. These three sets of relationships form a triangle such that our obligations to God inform the way we are obligated to treat our fellow human being and the way we can expect to be treated. It also informs the way we treat the earth upon which we live. The theme of the holiday of Shavuot is that by including God, all of our interactions can be elevated. In a very real sense, Gods inclusion was meant to mitigate what might be our default position – indifference or worse – to our fellow human beings and disregard for the earth from which we are made and which sustains us, nurtures us and to which our bodies return upon death.
Passover is the celebration of freedom from oppression, and Shavuot is the celebration of the obligations that we freely accept upon ourselves as creatures of God destined to live our lives with infinite other beings on one shared space we call earth. At this time of year, we can all look at what we require to be free from in order to be free to find our own potential and the potential of our world.
Dr. James Hyman is CEO of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.
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The ritual and freedom of Passover